Pontoppidan, Eric. (1881). Some notes on the Creole Language of the Danish West Indian Islands. Journal for Ethnologie 13, 130-8.

Translated from German by Anne Gramberg and Robin Sabino1

Auburn University

The Danish West Indian islands have always had quite a complicated population and language situation. [St. Thomas] colonized by the Dutch, French, English and Danes, but under Danish rule, Danish was indeed always the official language2 but it could never establish itself as the language generally used. In the 18th century, all the white colonists used their mother tongues which were at least understood in their own circle, since English, as the commonly used language, had not yet displaced all the others. In addition, almost everybody had their own churches and preachers. The black slaves, however, which were mainly imported directly from Africa, developed their own mixed language, formed from Dutch, Danish, English, French, and Spanish elements, which soon was spread and also used as a means of communication between masters and slaves and even frequently became common as a kind of lingua franca among the white creoles themselves.

In the middle of the 1700's the previously pagan, black slaves were gradually converted to Christianity.3 These efforts were started partially by the Herrnhuter missionaries who worked chiefly in St. Thomas and St. John, partially by catechists sent from Denmark. Those gradually learned Creole, as the language was named and soon the teaching, initially only conducted orally, was supported by books in creole. A primer and a small Luther's catechism were the first [books] which were printed in 1770; in 1781 a translation of the New Testament was distributed. A language which was only used by uneducated Negroes for daily communication was naturally too narrow and too insufficient in ideas and words for this wider scope, and one had to therefore help oneself by borrowing a lot from the principal languages, chiefly from Dutch. By this means an acrolectal creole, more clerical, and a basilectal creole speech for daily business dealings was created.

But in the 1800's English became more and more dominant and the general colloquial language. The service in the Lutheran church was held in creole for the colored congregation until the 1830's; but as this [the language] slid more and more into oblivion, and when the younger generation had to first learn the creole as a foreign language, for example, for confirmation instruction, it was abandoned and English was substituted.

Now [in 1881] creole is nearly gone from St. Croix, also in the city on St. Thomas only some old women are found sporadically who are still familiar with the language. Only in the more remote parts in the country, such as in the missions of the Moravian Brothers at New Herrnhut and Nisky and on the small, deteriorated and half-wild island of St. John it is better maintained. There it is the mother-tongue and colloquial speech of the older generation, which speaks English badly and with difficulty but generally speaks Negerhollands with ease; the younger generation, in contrast, has adopted English and one can say with confidence that the creole language very soon will be a dead language; in one generation one will only with difficulty still find anyone who can speak it.

I have therefore attempted to gather some notes on this creole language before it is entirely forgotten. The material is already now not easy to obtain if one wants to know how it is truly spoken. In the written record there are only religious works, catechisms, psalms, and so forth, and as mentioned before, these are heavily blended with Dutch. This Hoch Kreol is often not understood by a person who is accustomed to the colloquial speech habits, especially if they did not learn something about it [Hoch Kreol] in confirmation classes. The translator of the New Testament also states in the Foreword "It is necessary for spiritual matters to follow Dutch rather than the actual common language of the creoles, so I am obliged to give a warning that I have followed the same rules in this translation of the New Testament. I have followed the Creole manner of speaking overall, but I have not used the common words and language because that is not appropriate for so spiritual a matter".

As an example, I will now quote that he [the translator] uses "spreeken" and "spraek" here; in ordinary usage "Sprich deine Sprache" `speak your language' would be said as "prat ju tal".4

The oral sources, which are still available, are all from the lowest social class; they are mostly old country Negroes whose ideas move in a very narrow circle and whose vocabulary is therefore also very limited. Of course they can never spell the words, and one encounters many local and also individual differences and variations in speech, also there frequently remains uncertainty as to whether for example a word is English or Creole, etc.

I will, however, attempt to give a short sketch of the structure and a few examples of this soon to become extinct language.

As a typical Negro language, the chief characteristic of the creole is simplicity and formlessness5; one could almost say that it has no grammar. Everybody who has lived among Negroes knows that they [the Negroes] make do with a foreign language with great ease; they soon have a supply of verbs, nouns and adjectives, but they lack the means of putting them together. Even the English language which is very simple and without forms, gives unassailable difficulties to them within the grammar. Even Negroes owned by English speakers can never overcome this, and one hears "I is," "you am," "me be," "a teeth," etc. as frequently or more often than the correct forms. The Negro speaks English, French, Spanish, all according to the same method, i.e. like a child and uses his "Patois" without paying much attention to grammar. From this point of view, one can look at the creole language as an ideal [solution to their language needs]. Another very conspicuous characteristic of this idiom is its wealth of proverbs, many of which are striking, original, and naive. The themes come from the simple, narrow sphere of the Negro, mainly domestic animals seem to have delivered the material for it. One can thusly hear two old Negroes having a conversation that is almost entirely put together from proverbs and stereotypical aphorisms. It seems that these proverbs are more the property of a society standing on a lower intelligence or at least education; for example, the old Nordic "Edda"6 is full of proverbs, and those, too, have to be searched for nowadays in Europe mainly among farmers. It may be that a view accustomed to narrow boundaries observes movements in its limited, small world more sharply, or that the proverbs and aphorisms as a stereotypical form for a thought which are easily remembered, spare a weak, untrained intelligence the work to formulate new thoughts.

I will not try at all to present a grammar of the creole language as it is written, instead I will only indicate which role the different elements played in the formation of the language and what the main characteristics of its accidence look like. Since these latter mostly are of a negative nature, the task becomes under this aspect one which does not put a large claim on space or linguistic capacity; moreover, an included sample of the written language will help the reader to build a better concept of this rather interesting language.

Clearly Dutch leads the way among the languages from which the creole contributions were supplied. Dutch and Danish have pretty much supplied all of the reoccurring, combining or conjoining words, so to speak, the mortar of the language, and thereby determined its character. This relationship reminds us a lot of English in which precisely this part is mainly of Germanic origin, while the words of Latin root occur more in the other word classes: nouns, adjectives, verbs. Due to the similarity between Dutch and Danish it is very often difficult to tell which one was the source of a certain word. The same is true in some instances for this third related language, English, although it has had relatively much less influence. To give an example, I present a widely used proverb: water kok fo fes, fes no weet 7`The water is being boiled for the fish but the fish doesn't know it'; one will see from this [the example] how almost all words are a kind of combination between two or even of all three of the above mentioned languages and how difficult it becomes to identify a single source for the creole. On the other hand, one will encounter, also at the same time, many rather pure Dutch, Danish, or English words.

The French and Spanish elements are of course a lot easier to separate. They are not very strongly represented. The French [elements] are mostly those that have a more cosmopolitan distribution and are found in all languages, like Pardoon, Manier (as pronounced in German) Condisje, Consciensje, Permisje, Satisfacsje, Plesier, Creatier, etc. There is also a whole series of verbs all with the ending eer like Respekteer, Assisteer, exkyseer, mankeer, pardonneer, permitteer, trakteer, persoadeer, forceer, obserweer, murmureer and many others.8 One even finds Germanic words in the same half-French disguise: leweer (German liefern `deliver,' Danish levere), vermeer (German vermehren `multiply, propagate, increase'), veroneer (German erniedrigen `degrade,' Danish fornedre), verordineer (German verordnen `prescribe'). The same word, depending on how it is taken from different languages, can have different meanings like loop (`go, walk'), kurir (`run, walk').9 The Spanish portion is not large in Hoch Kreol, but one does, however, find such words as pará `prepare', cabá `complete', mata `kill'. In common creole one finds Spanish more frequently, mostly as names of animals, implements and the like: cabaj `horse,' cubrita `goat,' and some which are naturalized in all of tropical America like avocato, mammai, papai `fruit', etc.

Very few words appear to be of African origin. Although this is probably true of the commonly known expressions: Obeah `magic,' Jumbi, mumbo-jumbi 10`ghost'. Some others can perhaps be included here; it is a rather small number of creole words, which I, at least, was not able to derive from elsewhere. For example Makutu `basket,' a word which I have only also found in Curaao, quaet, leeluk `bad, wicked or unpleasant,' fraj `good,' gaw `quick,' and others.11

Even others seem to be from purely creole origin, and then they are often formed half-onomatopoeically like pat-pat `duck,' gurru-gurru `throat'.12 Such a doubling or repetition of a word occurs frequently enough in the creole language and normally indicates a reinforcement of the expression or something which is a quickly repeating action, for example peck-peck `collect, gather,' heel heel 13`entirely,' war war `truly,' hoop hoop `big heap,' gaw gaw `very quickly,' fru fru `early in the morning,' soo soo `nothing at all'.14

I have already mentioned that the creole language does not actually have a grammar, at least as it is normally spoken. One then can consider as a general rule which has very few exceptions, that every word can have only one form; ordinarily one can then only differentiate between the different tenses or between singular and plural and such things by sentence structure and the whole context. Of course such a loose language can not express anything precise or logical.15 Take for example the verb kik `see'; it is customary in speech that this one form expresses all tenses and moods. Mi kik ju cabaj means `I see your/their horse/horses'. But one also says: Mi kik die Cabaj gester `I saw the horse yesterday' and: mi kik die Cabaj, wanneer mi cabá `I will see the horse when I am finished'. But in writing and in better speech there is a past tense form constructed with ha or ka and a future constructed with lo or lolo: mi ha kik `I have seen,' mi lo kik `I will see'.

The definite article is die which does not change for gender or number. The indefinite article is een. The substantive has usually only one form but in Hoch Kreol, here and there, one pluralizes by adding -en or -s, but not consistently. For example, Die mens `human being,' die mensen [`human beings'], een Sondenaer `a sinner' Sondenaers. In the catechism Kint `child' has the plural form Kinders, but in daily speech one says: zwee, drie Kint. The genitive is expressed by sji `his, its'16: Hundu sji flim `the chicken its feather'.

The adjectives are, as in English, uninflected--die fraj mens, die fraj mensen--with the exception of the comparative. The comparative is formed by meer, the superlative by meest or with the addition of -ste[:] Pobre `poor,' meer pobre, pobreste. Guj, `good,' better, best is irregular. The numerals are quite similar to Dutch: Een, erste; twee, tweede; drie, derde; tien; twentig; dysend. The personal pronouns mi, ju, him, ons, ju, die17 are used as possessives: Mi bang ju hund, `I'm afraid of/fear your dog'. Sji is reflexive `his, its'.

After these indications, which claim nothing else but to demonstrate the enormous simplicity of the language, I will provide as samples, several proverbs as I found them in the vernacular, and finally [I provide] a chapter of the New Testament.


1. P: Kakerlaker no ha bestel na hundu sji cot.

P:`Cockroaches have no business in the fowl house'.

2. Hundu suk maktu, maktu tu him.

P:`The fowl goes towards the basket, and the basket falls over it'.

3. P: Pad mi long, geambó drog na sji boom.

P:`My path is long, the geambo (a fruit) will dry on his tree'.

4. P: Een finger no kan fang lus.

P:`One finger can't catch lice'.

5. Blau diffie seg: wen regen caba, mi sal bau mi eigen hus.

P:`The Blue dove (a bird which doesn't build its own nest) says: when the rain has stopped, I will build my own house'.

6. Pobre folluk no fo ha hart bran.

P:`Poor people must not have warm heart'.

7. Hundu seg: mi kan sweer for mi eju, mo no fo mi kikinsji.

P:`The hen says: I can swear for my egg, but not for my chick'.

8. Na guj hart mak cabrita sji gat bin nabitti.

P:`His good heart causes the goat's bottom to be exposed'.

9. Pobre no bin fraj.

P: `Poor is not good'.

10. Wanneer de wind ris, dan ju fo kik hundu sji gat.

P: `When the wind rises, then you can see the chickens' bottoms'.

11. Na groot geest mak Crabbo no ha kop.

P: `His great spirit causes that the crab has no head'.

12. Wanneer jekké sji flegon18 ha breek19, dan him suk fo how geselskap mit hundu.

P: `When the guinea hen broke its wing, then it looks for the chickens' company'.

13. Cocro no bang Slang, Slang no bang cocro.

P: `The crocodile is not afraid of the snake, the snake is not afraid of the crocodile'.

14. Water kok fo fes, fes no weet.

P: `The water is being boiled for the fish, but the fish doesn't know it'.20

15. Kuj sji horn noit sal ben swar for him drag.21

P: `The cow's horn never becomes too heavy for her to carry'.

16. Brambi fal na molassi, da sut him ka fen.

P: `The ant fell into the syrup because she found it sweet'.

17. Bergi mit Bergi no kan tek, ma twee mens sal tek.

P: `Mountain can't meet with mountain, but two people have to meet'.22

18. Mata mumma, du die before die kint, him sal jeet; ma mata kint, du die before mumma, him no sal jeet, him sal kris'.

P: Kill the mother and serve her to the child, it [the child] wants to eat her; kill the child and serve it [the child] to the mother, she does not want to eat it, she will cry.23

19. Wat ple ju bottle bin, mi glas bin.

P: `Where your bottle will be, my glass is'.

20. Een man dodt een ander man brod.

P: `One man's death, another man's bread'.

21. Ekke man suk sji eigen wif.

P: `No man courts his own wife'.

22. P: Man dodt, besjet gurri na sji door.

P: `When a man is dead, then grass grows in front of his door'.

23. No fordimak pussje wander him fang rotter.

P: `It isn't because the cat wanders around that she catches rats'.24

24. Crabbo no wander, him no kom fet; as him wander attofel, him sal loop na pot.

P: `If the crab doesn't move, she will not become fat; but if she walks around too much, she walks into the pot'.

Mathew 14

Na di selve Tid Herodes, die Viervorst, ha hoor die Woord van Jesus.

2. En hem ha seg na sie Knegten: deese hin Johannes die Dooper: hem ka staen op van die Dooje, daerom hem due soo Werk.

3. Want Herodes25 ha ka vang Johannes, ha ka bind hem, en ha ka gooj hem na binne die Gefangnis26, voor die wille von Herodias, die Vrow van sie Bruder Philippus.

4. Want Johannes ha seg na hem die no bin regt, dat je hab hem.

5. En hem ha wil gern maek hem doot, maer hem ha bang die Volk, diemaek sellie ha how Johannes voor een Propheet.

6. Maer dietit Herodes ha how sie Geboorte-Dag, die Dogter van Herodias ha dans vor sender; en die ha behaeg Herodes gu.

7. Daerom hem ha beloov hem mit een Eed, for giev na hem, wat hem ha sal begeer.

8. En soo lang sie Muder ha ka onderrigt hem tee voorn, hem ha seg: giev hie na mie na binne een Skittel die Kop van Johannes di Dooper.

9. En die Kooning ha kom bedruevt, dog soo lang him ha ka sweer, en vor die wille van sender, die ha sit mit hem na Tafel, hem ha belast for giev di na hem.

10. En hem ha stier, en ha lastaen kap af Johannes sie Kop na binne die Gevangnis.

11. En sellie ha bring sie Kop na binne een Skittel, en ha giev die na die Mejsje; en hem ha bring die na sie Muder.

12. Soo sie Disciplen ha kom, ha neem die Likam, en ha begraev die, en sellie ha kom, en ha seg dat na Jesus.

13. Dietit Jesus ka hoor dat, him ha loop wej van daesoo mit een Skip na een Wusteine alleen; en dietit die Volk ka hoor dat, sellie ha volg hem na rut yt die Steden.

14. En Jesus ha loop yt, en ha kik al die Volk, en die ha jammer hem gu voor sender, en hem ha genees die Sieken van sender.

15. Na avondtit sie Disciplen ha kom na hem, en ha seg: deese bin een Wusteine, en Donker kom; lastaen die Volk loop van ju, dat sellie kan loop na die Dorpen, en koop jeet.

16. Maer Jesus ha seg na sender: die no bin noedig, dat sellie loop hen; jellie giev na sender for jeet.

17. Maer sellie ha seg na hem: ons no hab meer hiesoo, als veif Brooden, en twee Vissen.

18. Maer hem ha seg: bring sender hiesoo na mie.

19. En hem ha seg na die Volk, for sit neer na bobo die Gras, en ha neem die veif Brooden, en die twee Vissen, ha kik op na die Hemel, ha dank, en ha brek sender, en ha giev die Brooden na die Disciplen, maer die Disciplen ha giev sender na die Volk.

20. Er sellie almael ha jeet, en ha krieg sender Bekomst; en sellie ha neem op die gut, die ka bliev over, twaelf Makutten27 vol.

21. Nu die ha ka jeet, ha wees bie veif dysend Man, sonder Vrowen en Kinders.28

22. En anstonds Jesus ha forceer sie Disciplen for loop nabinne die Skip, for vaer over voor hem na die ander Sie, tee hem ha ka stier die Volk wej.

23. En dietil hem ha ka stier die Volk wej, hem ha klem na bobo een Berg, hem alleen, for bid. En na Avond hem alleen ha wees daesoo.

24. Maer die Skip, ha wees alreets na middel van die See, en ha wees na Gevaer voor die groot Baeren; want die Wind ha wees tegen.

25. Maer na die vierde Nagtvagt Jesus ha kom na sender, en hem ha loop na bobo die See.

26. En dietit die Disciplen ha kik hem loop na bobo die See, sellie ha kom bang, en ha seg: die bin een Spook: en sellie ha skreew van Bangheid.

27. Maer Jesus ha spreek mit sender anstonds, en ha seg: hab gueje Mud; da mie die bin, no wees bang.

28. Maer Petrus ha antwoordt hem, en ha seg: Heere! als ju die bin, soo seg na mie dan, for kom na ju na bobo die water.

29. Maer hem ha seg: Kom! en Petrus ha stap yt van die Skip, en ha loop na bobo die Water for kom na Jesus.

30. Maer dietit hem ha kik een groot wind. him ha kom bang, en dietet(?) hem ha begin for sink, hem ha ruep, en ha seg: Heere, help mie!

31. Maer Jesus ha strek sie Hand yt anstonds en ha vas hem, en ha seg na hem: O, ju kleingloovig! watmeak ju ha twieffel.

32. En dietit sillie ka loop na binne die Skip, die Wind ha kom stil.

33. Maer sellie, die ha wees na binne die Skip, ha kom, en ha val neer voor hem, en ha seg: ju bin waerwaer Godt sie Soon.

34. En sellie ha vaer over, en ha kom na die Land van Genezareth.

35. En dietit die Volk van daesoo ha ken hem, sellie ha stier yt na die geheel Land rondtom, en ha bring almael die Sieken na hem.

36. En sellie ha bid hem, dat sellie ha mut ruer alleen na die Soom van sie Kleed, en sellie almael, die ha ruer die an, ka kom gesond.

Sample of a Conversation in Common Creole29

Speaker 1: Morruk, cabé `good morning, comrade,' huso ju be die frufru?

Translation: Good morning comrade. How are you this morning?

S2: Dank, mi be fraj? Huso ju slaap dunko? Ju ka drum enista fraj? `Did you dream something good?'

Translation: Thanks. I am well. How did you sleep [last] night? You dream anything good?

S1: Mi no ha slaap fraj, mi ha ha pin `pain' na mi tan `tooth', ma die fru die be mussie better, dank God.

Translation: I didn't sleep well, I had pain in my tooth but this morning it is much better, thank God.

S2: Ju aht (comes from Engl. aught) to fo loop na die doctor fo trek die tan na bitte.

Translation: You ought to go to the doctor to take the tooth out.

S1: Mi addu (comes from Engl. rather)30 wak bitzji meer, fo kik as die tan sal pin mi weeran, dan mi sal loop fo trek die. Wat ju sal jeet fo frukost `breakfast' van dag?

Translation: I'd rather wait a bit more to see if the tooth will pain me again, then I will go to take it out. What will you eat for breakfast today.

S2: Mi sal ha stof fleis `stewed meat' mit bateta `potatoes' en dan ene kominsje `cup' te. Cabé Meria, ju loop na ju grun `field' fo lo peck geambó en dig `dig' bateta. Die pampun no ka rip nungal `are not ripe yet' te die manskin ful `until the full moon'. Die Peterselje no bin fraj nungal fo snie `cut'.

Translation: I will have stewed meat with potatoes and then a cup of tea. Comrade Meria, are you going to your ground to pick okra and dig potatoes? The pumpkins are not at all ripe until the full moon. The parsley isn't at all good to cut.

S1: Huso die beest lo kom an?

Translation: How are the animals coming on?

S2: Die how cirj bin fol, en sal gaw ha calluf.31 Die boricka ka marro `the mule became wild' en caló over die bergi, mi ka stier die jung fo lo fang die. Die farki `young pig/s' bin na cot, mi lolo suk bateta-tow32 `stem' fo jeet fo die. Een cuj ka kom over die barcad `barriers' en ka destroi `ruined' alga die jung plantsoon; wen mi fang die mi sal drag die na fort, mak die eigenaer betal. Mi lolo na taphus `city,' mi lolo suk stekki sowed gut `a piece of salted [meat]' fo mi goj na pot.

Translation: The old cow is at full term and will soon have calf. The mule has run away and galloped over the hill; I have sent the youth to catch it. The pig is in the pen, I'm going to look for sweet-potato vine for food for it. A cow has come over the fence and has destroyed all [of] the new plantation; when I catch it I will bring it to the jail, [to] make the owner pay. I am going to town, I am looking for a bit of salt meat to throw into my pot.

S1: Wat ju sal ha fo dinner?

Translation: What will you have for dinner?

S2: Mi no weet, mi wel `love' bak fes mit bak `baked' banana; wen mi no kan ha ander, mi jeet sowed gut mit funchi `flour groats'.

Translation: I don't know, I like baked fish with baked banana; when I can't have anything else, I eat salt meat with fungi.

S1: Mi wonder, as die ha eniste nyw `something new' na taphus; mi mankee loop fo weet die nyw, as mi kom na plantaj; fordimak we ha werk fo du na plantaj. Wi ha fo loop na camina `field' fo lo plant die sukustok `sugarcane'.

Translation: I wonder if there is any news in town; I want to go to know the news when I come to the plantation because we have work to do on the plantation. We have to go to the field to go plant the sugarcane.

S2: Ma biren `neighbor,' die pot lo brau `boils over'.

Translation: But neighbor, the pot is boiling over.

S1: Du die na grun `put him on the ground' te mi hoppo. Mi lo prat mit die mester, ma mi sal kom kik na die miselluf.

Translation: Put it on the ground, until I get up/wake up. I am going to talk with the master, but I will come to look at it myself.

S2: Mi sal groot te asteran `I am greeting for the time being,' mi sal kom weeran.

Translation: I will leave my greetings with you for the time being, I will come again.

S1: Adios.

`Good bye'.